Political parties across the spectrum united with mental health rights campaigners in the Long Gallery Stormont on Wednesday 30 Jan 2019 in an urgent call on the Health and Social Care Board to fund counselling provision in GP practices in line with need.

The event was sponsored by the All Party Parliamentary Group on Suicide Prevention and parties represented at the event included Sinn Féin, DUP, UUP, SDLP, Alliance, People Before Profit and the Workers Party.

Representatives of the Health and Social Care Board who attended the event were left in no doubt that this is an issue of massive concern, that the campaign commands widespread support and that all those in attendance will be helping #123GP to actively monitor the steps taken by the Board in the next 12 months to bring about

1.      An increase in the number of GP practices providing in-house counselling

2.      A decrease in the waiting times for counselling provision

At the packed event #123GP launched new research ‘Counselling A Vital Tool – Equipping GPs with Mental Health Expertise that shows that

·         People in mental health distress are forced to wait up to 7 months for counselling in some areas and that access to counselling via GP practices is a post-code lottery

·         Only two thirds of GP practices provide access to counselling in their practice and the percentage has dropped in the past year

·         Patients are limited to an average of 6 sessions only, which is generally inadequate.

·         No official waiting time targets exist and some Trusts do not monitor waiting times at all

·         Funding allocation for GP practice based counselling has increased by less than 5% in the past 4 years, despite a spiralling mental health crisis, exacerbated by welfare reform and the introduction of Universal Credit.

A new campaign video and motion graphic produced by Ulster University Science Shop students were also launched at the event.

Those present heard how, despite current budget allocation for GP practice based counselling averaging at £2.29 per patient, the Health and Social Care Board publicly admit that they regularly 'hand money back' for mental health programmes. 

In his opening remarks, Fra McCann MLA on behalf of Orlaithi Flynn, Chair All Party Parliamentary Group, congratulated the #123GP campaign and highlighted the urgency of addressing the issues involved.

Ms. Kathy Gilliland #123GP gave an overview of the #123GP campaign background and aims. She highlighted just some of the campaign actions undertaken during 2018, which included petitions, surveys, meetings, protests, quizzes and delivering ice-creams to the Health and Social Care Board!

Speakers included #123GP campaigners with direct experience of accessing mental health care from their GP practices. Paula Matthews from the #123GP campaign described her battle over a number of years to access appropriate mental health care. 

She spoke of how highly she rates counselling as a treatment option for mental ill health ‘There is vast power in talking. In having your trauma acknowledged by another human being’, but questioned why it is so difficult to access for so many people.

Reflecting on her own horrendous experience of accessing the care she needed, Paula noted that her GPs ‘did have compassion, they just didn’t have resources’. She concluded by highlighting that the issues which need to be addressed by the Department for Health and the Health and Social Care Board are structural and financial in nature.

Another #123GP campaigner, Kirsty Scott spoke of her family’s positive experience of accessing counselling through their GP practice in the face of the tragic loss of her 19 year old son and subsequently the sudden death of her husband.  She highlighted the fact that for many people, particularly older men, living rurally, access to counselling provision through the GP practice, is vitally important. Kirsty noted that many such people would never otherwise consider the option of counselling. She called on the HSCB to properly fund  counselling services ‘to make sure that families don’t have to go through some of the things people here today have had to endure’.  

Christine Rocks, another #123GP campaigner from Magherafelt stressed the absolute urgency of the Health and Social Care Board improving access to counselling through GP practices “The awful reality is that some people will be dead before they get the help they need. The HSCB needs to at least double the amount of money it is putting into GP practice based counselling, and do it now”.

Ms. Josie McKernan and Ms. Frances Shields, both also members of the #123GP campaign,  read out statements from Ms. Nuala Quiery Counsellor and the Royal College GPs NI.

Mr. Bobby Carlin, a Counsellor and Counselling Manager outlined the significant benefits of having counsellors embedded within primary care teams, both to the client but also to the entire primary care team.  He pointed to the findings of the #123GP research, including long waiting lists and a post code lottery in operation, and identified the lack of funding as the core underlying problem. He too called on the HSCB to properly fund counselling services within primary care, noting that a doubling of funding would yield immediate benefits.

Paige Jennings, Policy Officer PPR presented the findings of the #123GP campaign’s survey. Key findings included

-          Only half of those surveyed who had gone to their GP with concerns about their mental health were offered counselling

-          Of those who weren’t offered counselling 77% would have liked to have been offered it

-          94% of those offered counselling took up the offer

-          86% reported that it had benefitted them

-          27% of people waited over 4 months for an initial appointment

Additional analysis of data obtained by #123GP campaigners using Freedom of Information legislation on the issue of access to counselling through the Primary Care Talking Therapy Hubs showed huge disparities across the 5 Trusts. Waiting times for the Western Trusts averaged 7 months, while waiting times for other Trusts ranged between 40 days and 63 days. Two Trusts indicated that they don’t monitor waiting times. The average number of sessions available to people was 6.

Sara Boyce, Campaign Organiser PPR explained how, having analysed all of the evidence gathered, #123GP campaigners identified the following 2 key indicators and benchmarks against which to measure improvement in access to counselling

#1: the percentage of GP practices that take up funding for the provision of practice based counselling

Benchmark of 100% of GP practices taking up funding by January 2020

#2: Waiting times for counselling from referral by the GP to date of first counselling session

Benchmark of 28 days waiting time from GP referral to first appointment

Sara noted that #123GP campaigners were looking for changes that, in the words of PPR’s founder Inez McCormack, ‘could be seen and felt’.  As such, the monthly Board meetings provided a good opportunity for progress to be reported on by the HSCB. 

Barry Murray #123GP then outlined highlights from the #123GP campaign during 2018. He also updated those present on #123GP’s engagement with the HSCB to date. He described the ‘battle’ the campaigners had just to secure a meeting with the Board.

Barry drew attention to six questions campaigners had put to the HSCB in December 2018.

In his response on behalf of the Health and Social Care Board Dr. Windsor Murdoch did not address #123GP questions or recommendations, nor the Board’s subsequent response. In the interests of transparency, the full text of the Board’s written response to #123GP can be accessed here.  Dr. Murdoch did acknowledge however that ‘well meaning words are not enough’ and agreed that GPs should employ counsellors in their practices.

In conclusion the event chair, Dessie Donnelly, PPR thanked all participants and said that #123GP now looked forward to working with political parties and others to hold the Health and Social Care Board and the Department of Health to account for the changes needed.